In the end Kaag, in his lucid and absorbing book, professes himself “not always entirely sold on life’s value”. And it is true that each of James’s various sources of meaning is inadequate, on its own, to the task of lending our existence an ultimate meaning. But then each of our senses, alone, is incapable of giving us a complete picture of the world. We use them all together and, when one is failing, we must rely on the others. It seems more in the spirit of James’s famous pluralism, too, to draw on all the sources of meaning together, internal, external, intrinsic and instrumental, as much as we can. And in times when one or the other fails us, as will inevitably happen, we can lean on those that remain.
Despite some instances of superfluous self-revelation – do we really need to hear about Kaag’s failed marriages? – this short book is an excellent introduction to William James and his philosophy. It is timely, too, given the state of the world as it plunges towards hell in a handcart. Help, even if not of the life-saving kind, is available. As John Kaag beautifully has it, ‘Pragmatism is about life and its amelioration. That’s it.’
Sick Souls,Healthy Minds belongs to the American confessional genre, which runs all the way from Puritanism to Norman Mailer. As befits the Me generation, it is as much about the author as his subject. James is sometimes no more than a convenient peg on which Kaag can hang his dishevelled thoughts about getting divorced, his predictably beautiful daughter, getting divorced again and so on. We learn that he has a beer at five o’clock every day, that as a kid he was uncoordinated and stuttered badly, and that his daughter swallowed some amniotic fluid on the way out of the womb but quickly recovered. He even threatens us with a future book on bringing up a child as divorced parents. It isn’t obvious quite what any of this has to do with, say, the pragmatist claim that truth can only be established retrospectively, or indeed with the life of James, but like many an autobiographer Kaag seems to assume that others will be as interested in the small change of his own existence as he is himself.